Klobuchar and Wasserman Schultz have their own breast cancer stories. This is how they want Congress to fight it. – USA TODAY

Posted By on October 30, 2021

Lawmakers discuss breast cancer and legislation to raise awareness

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., who have both been diagnosed with breast cancer, are calling for action.

Jasper Colt, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON When Sen. Amy Klobuchar received the news in February that she had breast cancer, she not only joined asmall group of women in Congress who have had the diseasebut also becameone of the thousands in the U.S. who are diagnosedeach year.

Klobuchar, D-Minn., said getting her breast cancer diagnosis was a "shock." Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., described her diagnosis in 2007 as "devastating."

As Breast Cancer Awareness month comes to a close, both lawmakers are fighting in the halls of the Capitol for better preventive care and more advocacy for survivors.

Klobuchar announced Thursday that she is introducing thePreventive Care Awareness Act, legislation she started crafting after her diagnosis, she told USA TODAY.

The legislation would aim to help people get appointments needed to detect cancer early by promoting health care screenings androutine examinations andphysicals.

"The numbers aremuch bigger than people think," Klobuchar said. "Now I'm one of them. And I never thought that would happen."

Klobuchar, 61,revealed in September that she was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer and that doctorsdiagnosed her with stage 1A cancer after a biopsy in the spring. The diagnosis came after a routine mammogram she had delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

After other tests, she was treated at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and hadalumpectomy to remove a tumor in her right breast. In May, she began radiation therapy.

More: Sen. Amy Klobuchar reveals breast cancer diagnosis, successful treatment

The senator's revelationput a national spotlight on the disease the American Cancer Society says results in more than 200,000 diagnoses each year in the U.S.According to theCenters for Disease Control and Prevention,breast cancer is the second most-common cancer among womenbehind skin cancer.

Wasserman Schultz, 55,kept her diagnosis private for more than a year after learning she had breast cancernearly 14 years ago. She did so to protect her three children at the time.

She had a double mastectomy and continued to work as a lawmaker during treatment,scheduling surgeries during weeks the House was in recess.

More: Casey DeSantis' cancer journey will include balancing the private and public, survivors say

Klobuchar noted many Americans missed doctors appointments in the past year and a half amid thecoronavirus pandemic, and somedelayed appointments out of fear of contracting COVID-19 at hospitals or doctors' offices. Klobuchar put off her own cancer screening for about a year.

More: Olivia Newton-John and Hoda Kotb tearfully bond over breast cancer journeys: 'We're sisters'

"We know there's tons of people (who have had)undetected breast cancer and other forms of cancer," Klobuchar said. "I put mine off from the beginning of the pandemic."

At the beginning of the pandemic, cancer screenings were not considered essential medical services instead, they were classified as elective procedures, leading patients and medical professionalsto deprioritize them.

"The sooner you know these things, and stop playinggames in your mind and get the screening done, the better you're going to feel and certainly the better off your health is going to be," Klobuchar said.

It was her personal experience that inspired her to create the legislation, which would establish a task force to develop recommendations addressing preventive care access during COVID-19 and future public health emergencies.

It also would direct the Health and Human Services secretary to create a public health education campaign aimed at informing people about access to preventive services incollaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the surgeon general and the administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

More: What do the different stages of breast cancer mean? Which is the most dangerous?

In addition, it awards grants to states, territories, localities, and tribal organizations to increase use and decrease disparities in preventive care services.

Wasserman Schultz agreed prevention is crucial to combating the disease while scientists search for a cure.

"We have to make sure that we focus on prevention" and early detection, she told USA TODAYon Wednesday, surroundedby pink breast cancer awareness memorabilia in her office. Funding preventive measures can bring down mortality rates, she said.

Preventive care measures for breast cancer include scheduling regular mammogramsand physicals. Klobuchar said a key part of the education campaign would to be inform the public that most of those services are free.

Wasserman Schultz also emphasized the need to educate people on how to do self-exams.

After her first mammogram, which came back clean, she became more "aware of paying attention to my breast health. So, I was doing a self-exam in the shower, found a lump,something that did not feel like what I normally felt."

Though survival rates vary for different cancers, generally, the later cancer is diagnosed, the more difficult it is to treat.

The U.S. National Cancer Institute, a government agency that conducts cancer research, published anacademic articlein early September 2020 that said it "conservatively estimates 10,000 excess deaths over the next decade from underdiagnosed and undertreated breast and colorectal cancers during COVID-19."

More: Many Arizonans avoided cancer screenings during the pandemic. That could have major ramifications.

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Klobuchar's bill, which hasn't been introduced in the House yet,is already getting bipartisan support in the upper chamber.

Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine andMike Rounds and John Thune of South Dakota have joined Klobuchar and Democratic Sens. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Jacky Rosen of Nevada in sponsoringthe legislation.

Rounds' wife, Jean, also isbattlingcancer.

My family has seen the importance of preventive health care firsthand as my wife, Jean, has been battling cancer since 2019," Rounds saidin a statement. "Unfortunately, thousands of American families share my familys story and witness how a scheduled check-up can turn into lifesaving early detection of a horrific disease.

Klobuchar and Wasserman Schultz have teamed up on similar breast cancer legislationand awareness before, helping leadthe charge to reauthorizepass theBreast Health Education and Awareness Requires Learning Young Act, or the EARLY Act, to be reauthorized last year. It was done so as part of the larger government spending and COVID-19 relief legislation.

That legislation, written by Wasserman Schultz in 2010, created an outreach program administered by the CDC to highlight the disease in younger women and those who may be at higher risk because of their ethnicities.

Wasserman Schultz said thatbecause of her Ashkenazi Jewish heritage, she was much more likely to carry a BRCA genemutation. Because of thegene, she was alsomore likely to have ovarian cancer. Shehadher ovaries removed during her breast cancer treatment.

"Making sure that young women knew their risk was animportant part of this legislation," she said.

More: Most women should schedule an annual mammogram starting at age 40

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What happens after the diagnosis and battle? Though it hasbeen nearly 14years since Wasserman Schultz's diagnosis and treatment, she stressed that the"survivor journey is for your lifetime. And there are so many pits and falls that youcan trip up on."

She told USA TODAY she plans to unveil House legislation this year to "help people navigate their post-cancer experience," focusing on helping survivors navigate doctors visits.

For Klobuchar,her diagnoses shined a spotlight on the disease.

"It's a whole new ballgame when it happens to you personally."

Contributing: Matthew Brown, Gabriela Miranda andJasper ColtUSA TODAY;Jim Rosica, the Tallahassee Democrat; and Drew Favakeh and Meena Venkataramanan, the Arizona Republic

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Klobuchar and Wasserman Schultz have their own breast cancer stories. This is how they want Congress to fight it. - USA TODAY

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